Israel Adesanya is one of the most interesting fighters to ever step inside the UFC octagon, and a win this weekend over Yoel Romero would solidify his legacy as one of the greatest of all time. But a win over Romero won’t come easy. Not only is Romero the most accomplished grappler he’s ever taken on, but he’s also an elite striker in his own right. Romero’s striking isn’t as smart or aesthetically pleasing as Stylebender’s, but his freak athleticism and explosiveness make him his toughest challenge to date.
Stylebender has built his career on what I call ‘patient aggression.’ He is almost always plodding forward and walking his opponent down, but he does it much differently than most. Instead of pressing forward with a multitude of wild combos, Adesanya will slowly walk forward with feints and carefully selected strikes just at the end of his jabbing range. Some of these moments are finishing sequences and he still doesn’t get too aggressive or sloppy to put himself out of position to defend. This calm and confident demeanor during chaotic exchanges is a rare skill in any combat sport and Adesanya has it down pat. Something else that makes his patient aggression even more impressive is his variety of attacks. He is always attacking the body to set up strikes to the head and the constant stance switches and feints make it almost impossible to know what’s coming next.
Another part of Adesanya’s game that makes him so tricky to deal with is his ability to manipulate the rhythm and pace of his strikes and the entire fight. Rhythm manipulating strikes aren’t talked about often, but they are a brilliant way to exploit an elite striker’s defense. Generally, if you throw a 1-2 down the middle it’s going to come at the same speed and timing. The jab is thrown first with the rear straight immediately following while you’re retracting your jabbing hand. If you throw this repeatedly the opponent will eventually know the rear straight is coming after the jab and prepare for it as the jab is coming in. But if you can delay the rear straight for just a second, the opponent will block too early and you can land the punch as they are dropping their defense. Essentially you are feinting in the midst of a combo, waiting for them to bite on it, and throwing the strike a second later as they are dropping or adjusting their defense. It might not look like much but its something Adesanya is setting up all throughout a fight. Take note of the first clip against Kelvin Gastelum. Adesanya shows a hip feint that Gastelum bites on by lowing his lead hand to parry it. Then Adesanya uses the same feint to shuffle forward into striking range, Gastelum drops his lead to parry, and Adesanya throws the kick immediately after the feint and lands it just under his defense.
Although Adesanya shines on the lead, he is just as effective on the counter especially as of late. Since his opponents know they are not going to out technique him on the feet at long range, some have attempted to push the pace and fluster him into a firefight. Anderson Silva, Kelvin Gastelum, and Robert Whittaker tried to push past his length and force exchanges in the pocket where he would seemingly be less comfortable. But Adesanya showed he can stay calm in the pocket and stay defensively responsible while reading the opponent and looking for counters. This was most prevalent in his knockout of Whittaker. Notice in slow motion how he is blocking Whitaker’s punches with hands and forearms while leaning back at the waist to keep his head out of range and firing off a counter of his own.
As we all know by now, Adesanya is a defensive genius and truly lives by the “hit and don’t get hit” theory of fighting. His footwork and awareness are second to none which is what allows him to easily see strikes coming and evade them. And as the fight goes on and Adesanya gets time to read your reactions and tendencies, he becomes even more evasive and hard to hit. But this evasive style of defense just might be his downfall against a fighter like Yoel Romero.
Adesanya’s defense is damn near perfect and has been analyzed to exhaustion. So instead of praising his defensive prowess, we are going to look at some way’s opponents can exploit it. The first thing we must look at is his stance. He keeps a rather wide base in an almost side-on stance with his hands low and torso upright. This allows him to stay long and use an extended hand to create distance while using his footwork to evade and eventually take an angle back to the center of the cage. The low hands allow him to grab underhooks to defend takedowns and make his punches come up at an angle instead of straight which can be a bit harder to see coming through your guard. This has worked wonders for him thus far but the one type of fighter that this defense struggles against is an explosive and well rounded athletic freak like Romero.
Romero won’t blow you away with high-level striking technique but his herkie jerky style and explosive athleticism could cause a lot of problems for the champion. Adesanya’s style relies on him setting the pace and range of the fight and his awareness, defense, and footwork are usually enough to do so. But Romero is probably too smart to play into his outside striking game and should be looking for ways to trap him against the cage to take away his best weapon in his movement. We have seen a few fighters have success rushing in on Adesanya and attempt to pull him into a firefight, but none were able to fully capitalize as his counters were on point. But at this point, we know nobody is going to outsmart him on the feet and the best way to beat him is to force a brawl. Adesanya is generally to smart to allow that to happen, but Romero might be the perfect mix of good technique, unorthodox style and exceptional athleticism to pull that out of him.
The other intangible in this fight is the grappling. Romero is one of the most accomplished wrestlers to ever transition to MMA but oddly he rarely uses it as the main component to his game and generally just shoots for takedowns at the end of rounds to score points. Now more than ever would be the time for Romero to finally rely on his grappling prowess but if he does Adesanya has shown great takedown defense and ability to get back to his feet. We talked about the low hands earlier which also allow him to grab underhooks to defend takedowns. And if he does get taken down, he is adept at moving his hips to the cage and using the help of the fence to get back to his feet. Overall, I think this is Adesanya’s fight to win and his chance to solidify his legacy as middleweight GOAT. His striking is too smart, his reading ability mid-fight is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and his confidence is unmatched. But we have seen athleticism trump intelligence many times in this crazy sport so don’t be surprised if the better fighter doesn’t walk out with the belt around his waist.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance MMA writer who specializes in pre-fight breakdowns and analysis. He has been an MMA fan since 2007 and has been writing about combat sports since he was 17 years old. His work can be found on Sherdog, MMA Today, and now MyMMANews!